“It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.” – Muhammad Ali quoting Robert Service
Life is strange, as Hafsah Ali will tell you.
Throughout her formal education in England, she felt constrained by the overwhelming emphasis on getting a job with no encouragement to develop her unique abilities, inspire enthusiasm, or empower her to be anything more than another cog in a dreary machine. She feels that Britain has been risking the loss of an entire generation for the past few years due to high levels of unemployment, crimes often involving ethnic minorities, and discrimination on the basis of race, religion, and gender. This has created apathy and rebellion on the part of some young people who don’t feel like they are valuable stakeholders in society.
In 2009, Hafsah started volunteering for causes she felt passionate about and has never returned to her former narrow routine. And then a strange thing happened.
What began as grassroots volunteering at a local poetry festival, turned into national campaigning on issues affecting young people. “Before I knew it,” Hafsah says, “I was meeting with people in high positions of power, representing my generation.” This was life-changing, and she’d created the opportunity herself out of her own passion.
Hafsah was one of twenty selected from hundreds of young applicants from different backgrounds all across the country with the aim of developing programs to benefit the young people of England. The main project was Talent Match, a £100 million investment into youth employment. Individual leaders in their own right, they were also a team working together. This high-powered group helped Hafsah’s leadership style to evolve into what she calls leading from the back, meaning delegating tasks so that everyone works at what they are best at.
Most importantly, the core focus empowered Hafsah and her team to design programs for young people. Hafsah chaired conferences for those entering the labor market and newly participating in community functions, introducing them to the funding.
On a personal level, she found it intensely gratifying that she and her team were trusted to bring about beneficial outcomes, not only for young people across the country, but also for the less fortunate among them whose voices wouldn’t normally be heard. The experience provided an opportunity to present herself in a mature way and her generation’s fresh way of thinking. With her debating and public speaking, she has learned how to instill awareness, persuade, and inspire.
People often ask her where she finds the time to “do so much.” Eyes sparkling, she explains that she lives under the curse of an activist. “Since I started volunteering and campaigning, I can’t stop. If I was to stop, I would feel like I am wasting my purpose in the world.”
She has experienced the thrilling sense of accomplishment akin to climbing mountains, as expressed in the Ali/Service quote above that she so strongly identifies with. Yet she admits to stumbling over the pebble in her own shoe, the small grievances, the niggling fears. At HSI, Hafsah found herself atop a high pole asked to make a leap of faith onto a trapeze. Her own fear and self doubt made her so weak at the knees that her trembling legs felt like jelly. And then she deliberately shattered her perception of reality. With much support from her cheering fellows, she was the one who took the leap. She realized that her greatest obstacle had been mental, not physical. “This small moment in time had a very big impact on me,” she says, knowing she now has a tool to extract the worrisome pebbles in her shoe. Experiences such as this one plus the friendships and cultural exchanges at HSI have profoundly reinforced her life-path as an activist.
Life is strange
This that you feel, all that your mind fathoms in this very tiny moment
This that you imagine, all these pictures you are painting with the little paintbrush that is your imagination
This heart of yours that aches, aches more than your feet that carry your beautiful soul on a journey of endless acres
This that your soul hears, the song of life passing you by so quickly
All that you feel hear touch see and taste
With such passion
Know that this moment will pass
It is already passing
Transforming into the past
This moment is Yours
Guard it and nurture it before it has passed you
For the thief that is time does not know
Time does not know life is strange.
—Hafsah Tasleem Ali